When I was a kid, Chinese food was my go-to meal. I’d jump at the chance for fried rice or chicken chow mein.
Orange chicken, in its glistening sweet sauce, appealed to me especially, despite the fact the meat beneath that thick breaded coating could hardly be recognized as a natural protein.
When you’re a kid, oil and greasiness and excessive sweetness is pretty cool. As an adult, however, I’ve been craving a good place for Chinese here in Bellingham that didn’t hearken back to the days of the mall food court.
I’d all but given up on reliving my childlike appreciation of fried noodles and crispy eggroll—but then Dragon River came along. Tucked between Kids Northwest and Barbo Furniture on Cornwall Avenue, it looks like any number of the little eateries that pop up in town and eventually fade from memory when they go out of business. Dragon River, however, is destined for Bellingham greatness.
A large, tidy room full of tables with vinyl Americana tablecloths welcomes you, and the rest of the décor matches accordingly. There are no chopsticks at the table, but forks, napkins and pots of hot jasmine tea are issued when you sit down.
We were waited on by the charming owner, Sue, who along with co-owner Frank, works as many as 16 or 17 hours a day to operate the restaurant.
Though we arrived in time to snag the lunch specials (about $7 for soup, an egg roll and entrée), most options available weren’t the Sichaun or Northeastern province items that the restaurant specializes in, so we opted for the full-priced entrees. What we found, however, was that ordering one entrée per person could have easily fed a group twice our size.
I first ordered the egg drop soup, which at $1.10 for a cup was a cheap and tasty start to the meal. Thick and flavorful, it was a nice warm starter to whet my appetite before our large platters of food arrived. We ordered three dishes, all from the section of the menu devoted to Northeastern and Sichaun specialties, avoiding the requisite “standard” Chinese fare of cashew chicken, General Tso’s etc.
Three empty plates arrived, and we were pleased to find out the meal was to be served family style. Shao Cai, Mu Er with pork ($10.99) was a delightful dish unlike anything any of us had ever tried. The tender pork and hearty vegetables in a thick, flavorful sauce were wonderful, but the Mu Er mushroom made the dish. Once a delicacy but now more accessible, the Mu Er, more commonly referred to as the Wood Ear, is a strange and wonderful fungus. It at first appeared unappetizing, writhing gelatinously atop the pork, but when bitten into it was rich and surprisingly firm, like cooked cabbage. It truly felt like a special substance, and especially unique to the Northeastern region.
We next gave the house chao mian ($8.99) a shot, as it included shrimp, chicken and barbequed pork. It was wonderfully seasoned, and didn’t at all resemble the oily mess I enjoyed as child. Non-greasy, and full of still-crunchy sweet onions and cabbage, it was definitely the grown up version of a nostalgic treat. The shrimp were somewhat overcooked, but the noodles and vegetables were overwhelmingly good.
The Ma Po Tofu ($8.99) was delicious as well, though not suitable for vegetarians as it is cooked with pork broth. Sue was kind of enough to jump in at each order and explain which ingredients were included in case of dietary restrictions, but our party consisted of hearty eaters who relished a little extra pork flavoring whenever possible.
Since I’m a meat lover by nature, I rarely order tofu, but was very satisfied with the giant plate of decidedly non-mushy tofu with peas and carrots in a spicy and salty sauce. We were served plenty of white rice, which was a welcome sight, as many restaurants seem to skimp with their complimentary rice. I definitely needed seconds of rice just to soak up the sauces that were too good to pass on.
In the middle of our meal, we were delivered the bao zi ($4.50), four tender little pork dumplings with garlic sauce and an unbeatable dough. I’ve never been a huge fan of the steamed buns you find at Asian groceries, simply because of the consistency of the dough, but these buns had a light, yet chewy, dough that allowed the flavor of the pork shine through.
We had loads of leftovers, yet I left wishing we had more, if only so that I could look forward to not one, but two sessions of Dragon River reheated late at night in my kitchen.
For those of you unimpressed with Chinese food in Bellingham, give this place a go, as their authentic dishes are likely to leave you interested in a new cuisine and open to trying things you probably can’t pronounce. And for those of you wishing for reliably good Chinese food that doesn’t leave you with a wallowing gut bomb, you, my friends, are finally in luck.
Check out Sally’s food blog at http://www.wolfsoup.com
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